Between Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome
Part 36: Being in the "Zone"
(Too much religion is apt to encourage evil.)
As critical as eschatology is to predict a certain inclination towards pacifism or violence, it's but one factor which contrasts Zen Buddhism from Abrahamic religions. Another important factor is temporal orientation. Empirically, I would argue that cultures which get stuck in the past and future do not tolerate impermanence or change and are inclined to be violent. On the other hand, cultures which focus on the present moment tolerate impermanence or change and are inclined to be less-violent.
Why did Zen Buddhism appeal so much to samurai warriors, then later, to modern martial artists? The fact that Zen Buddhism still flourishes long after the Age of the Samurai (1185-1868) ended certainly speaks volumes about its usefulness. Perhaps the gist of Buddhism as provided by Dhiravamsa may answer this question. Born in 1934 in northeastern Thailand, Dhiravamsa came to Great Britain in 1964, then later became an assistant abbot at a Buddhist temple in London. "The whole point of Buddhism," Dhiravamsa once said, "may be summed up as living in the present." Seriously, that's it?
Well, it's easier said than done. Let's go back to the Zen Buddhist parable of Tanzan and Ekido cited in Part 23 (Do We Choose a Belief or Does a Belief Choose Us?)?
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross at an intersection.
"Come on, girl," said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud. Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"
"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"
Thus while Tanzan represents Zen Buddhist practical values (to help a girl unable to cross the road), Ekido represents Abrahamic theological dogmas ("don't go near females, especially not young and lovely ones"). While Tanzan innocently lifted the girl in his arm to solve an immediate problem of the present time, then forgot about it, Ekido carried the girl from the past well into the future, with all the theological baggage that polluted his mind and paralyzed his thinking.
For Tanzan, and samurai warriors for that matter, living in the present simply increases their probability to survive. For martial artists, living in the present increases their probability to win. In almost any martial arts school, the importance to live in the present is universally emphasized in pursuit of the union of physical, mental, and spiritual selves. Indeed Zen Buddhism has always stressed that life must be seized at the moment, for only by doing so one is in full contact with oneself and one's environment. Modern sport psychology refers to this desirable condition as being in the flow or in the "Zone".
The importance to live in the present moment is actually not a monopoly of Zen Buddhism, nor a foreign concept in Western thinking. In the 17th-century, French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) stated: "So imprudent are we that we wander in times that are not ours, and give no thought to the only time that does belong to us." This sentiment was echoed by American poet and humanist Walter "Walt" Whitman (1819-1892): "Happiness not in another place, but this place … not for another hour, but this hour …" So powerful was the grip of the Christian eschatology on us that we still need another reminder from American author Fletcher Knebel (1911-1993): "Finally it has penetrated my thick skull. This life—this moment—is no dress rehearsal. This is it." Perhaps we do need constant reminders.
It's therefore worth noting that Hungarian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the pioneers of the scientific study of happiness who has been studying the "Zone" for about 40 years, stated that happiness is simply being deeply involved in the moment and not having the opportunity to think about anything but the task at hand. Carpe diem.
Being happy means being deeply involved in the moment, for example, by helping a girl to cross the road, then forget about her. On the other hand, being unhappy and grumpy means carrying the girl in the mind for hours then compulsively obsessed by the girl and simultaneously haunted by probable punishment as decreed by theological dogmas. For Tanzan, orientation in the present moment brings boldness, happiness and pacifism. For Ekido, orientation in the future brings insecurity, unhappiness and restriction, which, needless to say, are the seeds of violence. But how relevant are Tanzan and Ekido for us anyway?
The answer is provided by the late Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello (1931-1987) who once stated that religion as practiced today deals in punishments and rewards. In a cruel twist of irony, religion breeds fear and greed—the two things most destructive of spirituality. Within the last 70 years, the Middle East, the cradle of the great Abrahamic religions, has been engulfed by nothing but continuous religious wars, sectarian violence, and barbaric tribalism.
In Think religion makes society less violent? Think again. (The Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2015) Phil Zuckerman argues that the most secular societies (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Czech Republic, Estonia, Japan, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Hungary, China and Belgium) fare the best in terms of crime rates, prosperity, equality, freedom, democracy, women's rights, human rights, educational attainment and life expectancy. (There are exceptions, such as Vietnam and China, with poor human rights records.) On the other hand, the most religious societies (Nigeria, Uganda, the Philippines, Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Colombia, Senegal, Malawi, Indonesia, Brazil, Peru, Jordan, Algeria, Ghana, Venezuela, Mexico and Sierra Leone) tend to be the most problem-ridden in terms of high violent crime rates, high infant mortality rates, high poverty rates and high rates of corruption.
In the U.S., according to Pitt Griffin in The Critical Mind, "the God-fearing Deep South and Bible Belt suffer from the highest crime rates, while relatively atheistic New England enjoys the lowest." Based on a Review of the 2012 FBI Crime Statistics, "states with high rates of belief in God and church attendance do not lead to low crime rates. Utah, despite its large Mormon population, has a high incidence of rape." Furthermore, "The most violent states are 1. Tennessee 2. Nevada 3. Alaska 4. South Carolina 5. New Mexico 6. Delaware. The least violent are 1. Maine 2. Vermont 3. New Hampshire 4.Virginia 5. Wyoming." Believe it or not, the most violent region is the God-fearing, Bible-thumping, South; while the least violent is atheistic New England.
For once, can we connect the dots, or will we always be in denial?
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter